July 2, 2008

Arson: New frontier for exonerations?

Arson Screening Project launches this week

Shortly before Cameron Todd Willingham’s execution four years ago in Texas for a house fire that killed his three young daughters, four arson experts called into question the scientific evidence underlying his conviction.

"There's nothing to suggest to any reasonable arson investigator that this was an arson fire," wrote expert Gerald Hurst in his report. "It was just a fire."

Texas' governor ignored the report, and Willingham was executed on Feb. 17, 2004.

Although it was too late for Willingham, two years later fellow Texan Ernest Ray Willis was exonerated after a panel of fire experts working pro bono for the Innocence Project concluded that both fires were accidental. (Their full report is here.)

"Bad science" exposed

In their peer review, the fire scientists noted that many of the "indicators" of arson that were taught in fire investigation courses up into the 1990s have since been "scientifically proven to be invalid." Yet many so-called experts remain woefully uninformed on the current state of the science. Worse, others deliberately distort science, behaving "as if constant repetition would make [their false] assertion true."

The report echoes a 2004 Chicago Tribune investigation of the Willingham case that found that "many of the pillars of arson investigation that were commonly believed for many years have been disproved by rigorous scientific scrutiny."

Based on my former experience as a criminal investigator, I have no doubt that these problems are real, and are likely the tip of the iceberg. I saw many a case in which fire investigators quickly jumped to the conclusion that a fire had been deliberately set based upon the bad character of their prime suspect rather than reliable evidence.

With DNA exonerations starting to max out due to the small fraction of cases in which DNA evidence is collected, the Innocence Project is expanding into other causes of wrongful convictions, including what they call "inexact sciences" and pseudoscientific methods. Old arson convictions are likely to be at the forefront of this new area of scrutiny.

An Arson Screening Project launched just yesterday by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice will lead the charge, scrutinizing the backlog of arson cases compiled by the Innocence Project. Part of the Center for Modern Forensic Practice, the project will collect and evaluate claims of wrongful conviction "based on the use of a faulty, folk-science of fire indicators over the past 20 years."

One of the main dangers of bad science is that jurors tend to trust expert witnesses and to fall for such "science" hook, line, and sinker.

As one of the jurors who sentenced Willingham put it, "Maybe this man was innocent. Now I will have to live with this for the rest of my life."

Among the goals of the new project will be to create a pool of nonpartisan fire experts who can help avoid this outcome by disseminating information about the " 'bad science' arson experience" to other professionals and the public.

Hat tip: Grits for Breakfast

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